3 brilliant days in Fes gave us a real glimpse of Morocco, without the overcrowding and tourist tat of Marrakech. We visited in the month of April, which, although it meant scorching temperatures (think 37c!), it was a great Spring time trip from the UK.
Honestly, I wasn’t too sure what to expect with Fes, but it was cleaner and calmer than I expected, and not as much people ‘hassle’ as people lead you to believe about Morocco. Having come from Rabat though, there was a real different feel and it feel like an authentic insight into Moroccan life.
Fes offered us a fantastic insight into Moroccan life, culture and history. As the oldest of Morocco’s four imperial capitals, and one of the most complete cities in the ancient Arab world, it is a compelling destination on any trip to the country.
As with a number of Moroccan cities, it has a modern side – the Ville Nouvelle, but most of Fes’ attractions lie in the incredible Medina-city of Fes el Bali. The city’s layout is incredibly confusing and best explored on foot. Just prepared to be patient wandering in the medina, it is an intricate web of alleys and laneways, which all start to look the same! The locals certainly find it amusing watching you go by hundreds of times.
What to Do and See
Fes has an interesting selection of things to do, but none more essential to visit than the tanneries, for which Fes is famous. There are a number dotted around town, but the most well-known is at Chouwara. To find it, look for the signs on the walls which are there to guide tourists. However, to access – and there are numerous vantage points, you need to go into a leather shop and upstairs. Just ask and someone will guide you. Local staff are more than happy to share how the leathers are treated and dyed, and are surprisingly not too pushy about buying products. However, prices are definitely higher here than in other stores in town but we did choose to tip our guide 20 dirham for his tour and explanation.
The leather production process here in Fes has barely changed since the sixteenth century, so it definitely a worthwhile visit. Also, it really didn’t smell as bad as people say!
The Royal Palace
Fes’ Palais Royale is a beautifully restored building, located between old and new Fes. Unfortunately, visitors are not permitted to enter its grounds, but it’s really worth a quick look in and appreciation of the detailing!
Explore the Medina and Bab Boujeloud
The city’s oldest part and also a UNESCO World Heritage site, we spent plenty of hours wandering the medina and losing ourselves for hours in the small shops. It is almost impossible to find your way without Google Maps, or a very good paper map, but luckily, despite the heat, the alleys are well shaded. Bab Boujeloud is the gate at the heart of the medina and a great spot for a bite to eat at a cafe. Beware though, many food market stands have animal body parts hanging up, including heads! Quite the surprise as you’re walking by…
It’s also a wonderful place to pick up some lovely goods. You can find hundreds of spices, bathing goods, leather items, silver table ware and lamps and gorgeous clothes.
Medersa Bou Inania
One of the key tourists sites in Fes is this Medersa. This is a place where young Muslims would come to study religion, and many students lived in small residential rooms here too.
This Medersa is, without a doubt, one of the most alluring buildings in the whole country. Amazingly well maintained, without the crowds, it was a wonder to explore. As well as the downstairs main courtyard, you can explore the upper level and the student rooms, which makes for a great photo opportunity!
Explore the old Jewish quarter
Once known as a Mellah, in centuries gone by, this was the old Jewish quarter. It has a slightly more spacious feel than the rest of the medina, with different architectural styles.
The Bou Jeloud Gardens, also known as Jardin J’nane S’bile
The ideal oasis in the big city, these gardens are tucked away and remain perfectly peaceful. There’s a serene lake too and it’s a delightful spot for people watching.
Climb to the top of Mount Zalagh
Looming over Fes is Mount Zalagh which is well worth climbing to the top. At first we thought it looked a bit ominous and probably a prime spot to get mugged, but it was actually totally fine to go at sunset. I wouldn’t recommend visiting after dark. The views are amazing and really give you perspective on the sheer size of Fes!
To add to our authentic experience, we really enjoyed getting henna from a local girl. She couldn’t speak english but we spent ages picking a design before she delicately and softly applied the henna to our skin. It is like experiencing a real art form again, as opposed to the 2-minute henna art places in Dubai, for example.
Try a Hammam
For the ultimate local experience, a hammam is a must. There are plenty of private hammams for a more luxurious and pampering experience, but we were too curious to know what happens in a local hammam.
What an experience this was and perhaps one we don’t need again – but to do once is essential! We bought all the local products, mostly clay based for our hair and body.
Eat at Cafe Clock
If I could suggest one place to eat in Fes, it would, without a doubt be the wonderful Cafe Clock. Topping the list of foodie places in the city in almost every magazine or guide, the food is unbeatable. Camel burger? Got it. Date cheesecake? Got it. The best iced coffee in town? Definitely.
I nagged my friend to eat there for nearly every meal as I couldn’t get enough.
It’s fairly tucked away and you might need some directions from local guides, but when you’re inside, there are four storeys or so of cosy and cool seating. The cafe’s staff were really friendly and the cafe often puts on events such as live music or quiz nights. It really was a really wonderful place for locals and tourists to relax and mingle.
Stay in a local riad
Enhance your Moroccan experience and enjoy true local hospitality by staying in a riad. We stayed for three nights in Dar Warda, a small-family run riad tucked away about 5 minutes from Bab Boujeloud. We had a lovely room with some amazing tiling and a pretty roof terrace with panoramic views. A really brilliant breakfast was included, which really set us up for the day.
Getting to Fes
We arrived by train into the Ville Nouvelle from Rabat, before walking to the medina (approx 40 minutes). We discovered later how cheap taxis are, and would recommend this instead of walking.
We left by bus from the CTM station, located 5 minutes walk from the old medina. A fairly hectic and messy station, my main advice would be to come and by your onward bus tickets a fair few days before you want to go. They definitely sell out their seats! Especially onwards to Chefchaouen.
Overall, Fes was a fascinating stop on our Morocco itinerary. Jam packed with history and interesting architecture, but so much less touristy than we expected.
I hope this post has been useful for anyone planning a visit to Fes. Feel free to ask any further questions in the comments section below!
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